I confess to being very confused by the production. In this modern twist on Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet, women play men and men play women. Or rather, women play male characters as men and men play female characters as women…I think.
My confusion comes with the use of pronouns and lack of consistency in the costuming. For example, Romeo is played by a woman and is now called Romea (Mary Ellen Schneider) and referred to as “she” and “my wife” but she’s playing the role as if she were a man. The same is true of the rest of the female actors. Their stance and posturing is male, and their energy is masculine, but they’re still referred to in the feminine. They’re even dressed mainly in gender-neutral leggings and vests with a masculine edge, and vice versa. The two female roles – Juliet, now Julian (Dane Oliver), and the Nurse (Alan Blumenfeld) – are men playing women as if they were women but they’re referred to in the masculine and dressed in men’s button down shirts and trousers. It’s confusing to even describe it.
Truthfully, I spent most of the 90-minute show trying to wrap my head around the concept and figure out why it was so distracting (although seeing Alan Blumenfeld as a demure nurse who gets a little crazy is great fun).
I’ve seen plenty of productions with gender-reversed casting where the concept was clear. Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company regularly employed women playing men without confusion, and just last year, Theatricum Botanicum produced a gender-reversed Lear with Ellen Geer turning King Lear into a Queen, without ambiguity.
Here the exploration has the feel of an experimental acting class exercise but the heightened melodrama undermines the real story. Actors strut and puff about, yelling and racing around the boxy space so their words end up bouncing up into the rafters making it a challenge to understand them. Occasionally the energy settles down, at least for Schneider and Oliver, and these are the moments that draw the audience in.
Sit in the front row if you can. Though raked, the audience configuration creates some problems. Director Abby Craden stages several critical scenes on the floor and, beyond the first row, you’ll find it hard to see them. Sight lines are better if you sit in the two side sections however you’ll still miss what happens at the far end.
Shakespeare in LA
R&J, a gender reversed Romeo and Juliet
June 5 – 27, 2015
The Actors Company (The Other Space)
916 N.Formosa Avenue
Tickets: $15 at hff15.org/2379
Use code THITHER for $3 off